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Snow. Ash.

 

Wooden supports, darkened and flaking in the bitter northern winds, are all that remained of the hamlets wide archway. Once a much-anticipated sight to a weary traveller, it now stood as a stark memorial, ones first heeding of an open grave. Indeed - it is this that first had greeted his eyes, lonely and shadowed against the blanketed snow, this that had brought his wearied feet to a stop.

 

Upon the once-meadows of Hushed Bough, there is one other such as this. One he has had not the courage to return to.

 

It is a thought that does not leave him. Not as he had passed between the great, smoken monoliths, nor as he approached what would have once been the hamlet-proper. There, further decay had sunk its rotten fingers - structures from wood and stone reduced to charcoal and bloodied brick, skeletons of homes and hearths haunting the few occupants who floated betwit them. Upon the ground, faces covered by what little fabric spared the flames, had lain their dead.

 

Estinien had spared them their dignity, familiar enough with what fire could do to a body. How their eternal winter would preserve flesh beyond the natural.

 

He had arrived in Hemlock a week to the day of their attack. It was a full days’ journey from Falcon’s Nest, more on foot, but news of the hamlets fate had been slow to reach Ishgard. Few dwellings remained within the Coertheran Western Highlands, its many valleys, pastures and meadows lost to Dalamud’s great fall, the aetherial imbalance caused by such a disturbance enough to freeze whatever previous plant life remained thereafter. In its place, ice had cradled its rivers and lakes, and what was once green boasted a palette of white, and grey, and misery.

 

Thus, the little hamlet had been quite alone, east of the Black Iron Bridge, when a great dragon did come. The nearest reported scouts stationed to watch over the long-abandoned Dusk Vigil had a weaker chance than the villages themselves to contact help in time, stranded far below on the edges of the expansive Banepool. 

 

The survivors, those fast enough, lucky enough, to scramble deep enough within the local cave system to deter the licks of dragon fire and claw, had made the journey to the Falcons Nest themselves to request aid. Estinien had absconded from his pre-set plans the very moment he received news of a dragon attack, partially from his sense of duty, but more from the word that the Hemlock had been besieged upon by a dragon of extreme size.

 

A potential Nidhogg attack, or, more likely, one of his lieutenants. 

 

He had begun his journey alongside the erring survivors, but broken off at Black Iron Bridge to venture down to Camp Riversmeet, where he exchanged words with the Knights there in hope of collecting news of any sightings. Indeed, they had scouted it headed towards Gorgagne Mills, Hemlock’s closest neighbour, and confirmed its great size. From there, he walked alone to the wreckage, assured his aid, and made off towards the Gorgagne Holding despite the night sky.

 

He camped a day there, the talk of it being a heretics nest seemingly unfound, unable to bear the thought of a second longer among Hemlocks achingly-familiar scene. He prepared the following day, and then, upon the light of the third, he tracked the dragon along the Coerthas River, eyes ever to the heavens, climbing cliffsides and spanning canyons to follow its brief shadow to its chosen dwelling. Dragons had a habit of lingering long in areas they had laid claim too, and this one had appeared no different, frequently drifting out over the landscape as if Estinien did not mean to tear its very wings from its body.

 

As it were, it took refuge among the Slate Mountains, preying almost exclusively upon the large Yak that wandered the great, snowy plains leading to the Dravanian Forelands. Estinien made a visit to the Convictory, a well-visited stable essential to the chocobo trade out of Tailfeather, to leave his warnings of the dragons hunting grounds and stock up on supplies -- and then awaited his moment in a quiet, cold fury.

 

(Another Ferndale. Despite it all. Despite his all.

 

Powerless -)

 

It were no dramatic feat. 

 

He’d killed the dragon only a short day later. Tracked to a lonely lake separated from Banepool by a strip of land, its blood stained claws had dripped the ice to a saccharine shade of pink. There had been no artistry, in the kill. No glory, no grace. He’d driven his lance through the hardened bone of its wing, to maim its escape, and then, eventually, bloodily, through its skull.

 

Dragons sported a soft spot, just behind where the two halves of their skull melded together - their horns often tangled upon this spot in some half-hearted defense that acted better, he had found, as a target. It is, by no means, an easy spot to pierce, and indeed had only become viable thanks to the efforts of one Ser Iolaine Lightsteel, whose perchance for channeling aether into long, drawn out dives had provided the power needed to drive a lance through said gap.

 

It dies alone.

 

What horns and scales he can carry, he returns to the village to do what they may. They can catch a fine price, or a finer punching bag. In the centre of the hamlet, there had laid a pyre, and he did not stay long enough to catch more than a glimpse of it. Had not wished too.

 

He had been, in that moment, numb. Bloody. Longing for the calloused hands that awaited him in Ishgard, for the real, straightforward revenge he could amend his soul too at his companions' side. 

 

(He had not burnt his dead. He had sat with his brothers body, cold, hot, swelling and blistering and long deserted until Aldbert had come for him. They buried him, and his parents, and whatever sooden, blackened pieces of all those he had ever come to known, in a small, shallow grave, marked only by a rock salvaged from the Karkals shelter.

 

Estinien buried pieces of himself that day, held in the death curl of his brother's hand. Pieces that, if he were to hold to his chest, would no longer fit the malignant, fetid thing that lay there now.)

 

He had reported his kill at Falcons Nest. The Knights had looked blank and unbothered. He fantasied driving his fist into their red, heartily fed bodies again and again as he rode the returning route to Ishgard, piercing his palms to a bloody mess, holding only to the promise of a more satisfying avenue of anger at his destination.

 

Except -

 

One month. One Halone be damned month, and Fray had not been able to wait.

 

“You,” Estinien tells him, lowly, “are a fury-fucked fool.”

 

Untouched by the iciness of Estiniens gaze, Fray props himself up from the floor with a wince, and grins, quite madly, at his entrance. Something sharp catches at the edge of his smile, darkness unravelling down the length of his canines. He is bloodied, beaten, his armour muddied and dented beyond the scope of a simple altercation.

 

Upon his entry, Estinen had been quite sure he was dead.

 

(His first thought had been : I am going to kill him , shortly followed by, better check he's alive, first. -

 

Rather, he had panicked beyond what capacity he had known to feel it. Stood, frozen, as if a young boy confronted with a destruction bigger than himself, unable to comprehend the sudden myriad of thoughts that besieged him. The anger had come third, perhaps forth, to the spiral of abrupt nothing that had opened at his feet as a life, just that little bit more empty, stretched before him.)

 

“Ain’t no Fury fucking me,” he quips roughly, tasting at the red welling from his split lip, “Though, I wouldn’t mind one right now.”

 

“It seems plenty managed too.” Estinien retorts sharply, “Since there’s not a bloody whoreson alive who didn’t manage to get a hit on you. Can you even feel your face,?”

 

Fray raises a hand to his face, fingers poised as if to touch, and Estinien looks away to the table below him, where his scattered gear lies. His lungs feel - shallow, overgrown, as if something malignant has taken root within them. Every breath he pulls does not penetrate fully, and now, braced against the steady wood, he heaves in as best he can.

 

Fray is not dead.

 

He was beyond tired. For days, he had not stopped to rest, had pulled against his own nature, his own body, all in an effort to return on time. Yet he had not -- not for Fray, and perhaps not for those Fray had hoped to aid. It was stone cold, this failure, a dull ache, the unbearableness of winter upon the marrow, yet he had not the strength to feel it in its entirety.

 

And for that hurt, what fruit it had borne laid before him. Something precious, cut and broken, hurt, preventable.

 

Estinien longs, sorely, to crush, to maim, to let go.

 

Instead, he stares at the cloth-wrapped bread he had picked on the path home. It is lightly dusted with flour, spilled out upon the table, hyper-realistic against the blurs at his vision.

 

He remembers: How Fray had haunted the shadows, something syrupy and oiling rolling from the niches in his armour, how blood had twined among it as he fell to the first hit at the back of his knee, the loom of Holy Knights above him. How the darkness had curled around his fingers like some insubstantial smoke, how Frays blood had not. He remembers, a cold ishgardian evening, how the world had swirled to a stop for only the blistering yellow between metal slants:

 

“Would you rather I let you die?” He had asked, as if it were not the very abyss between his arms.

 

“Yes.” 

 

When he first met Fray, he believed there to be little left of his heart. There was something, aye, some humanity available only to the lilt of Aymerics kind voice, his remembrances of sweet breads and meadows now lost. An island, stranded far from what continent it had strayed from, surrounded on all sides by baying, freezing, anger. One so old, so branded to his bones, he could not be parted with it.

 

He believed himself, in some way, fractured, fundamentally, unable to collect together the pieces of himself he had once occupied. Hollowed out, an echo chamber for his fury, one so deep and dark and sterile naught else could share it. 

 

Fray had sat with him, some months after that encounter, legs over the edge of the brume, staring down into the nothing that stretched below their rotten city. He had learnt, on nights such as that, plagued and dogged by some unnameable misplacement, that he need not search for what is lost. That those parts of him, once green and new, were gone, and that he does not get them back. That one does not till gravesoil in the hope of the new life, that he must instead pick what seeds remain from the bitterness cultivated at his heart, plant what is left to build once more.

 

That his anger is enough to fill him, for now, that he can be constructed from his pain, his nothingness, and that there is no shame in that. In surviving.

 

Remaining.

 

Life had not dealt them kind hands, and they need not be kind in return. It was, Fray had said, all about the choice one would make at this precipice, this realisation of morbidity -

 

To help oneself, or to help others?

 

Fray chose others. Often, if not always, at the expense of himself. Kindness, Estinien had always thought, were not the word for it. It appeared as some desperate self-sacrifice, a wilted desire to die -- but to die for something. 

 

And such, he should not be surprised of this. They had planned to take down this operation together, before the request had come in for aid at the hamlet, and Estinien had been drawn away by the tempting morsel of information on Nidhogg. Fray had promised, promised , he would wait the fortnight till his return, but -

 

Frays empathy was a mere prelude to self harm. His connection to the people the chain that dangled from a cage. And where the people suffered most, he embodied that suffering within him, haunting the brume as if some unresting ghost drawn again and again to the place of its death.

 

The brume was a gathering of Ishgard most neglected peoples, the ruins of their peoples first settlement upon Halone’s chosen mountain now entirely occupied by only those poor enough to be forced to withstand the glacial mists borne of The Sea of Clouds. The majority of it lay within the narrower streets originally carved into the face of the mountain a thousand years ago, while the mouth of the Brume existed in Ishgard-proper, upon the flattened peak of the mountain. Such it was that much of the Brume went under-patrolled and unmanaged, yet needlessly harassed by power-hungry Temple Knights who took it upon themselves to impose their authority upon people whose voice had no reach.

 

This poisonous attitude led to atrocities those of Noble houses would have dismissed as mere rumour. As if it were not their sons, their daughters, committing such acts upon the blind eye of their betters. As if they had not part taken themselves, once, drunk on what power an anonymous uniform provided them. As if their complicity was never in question.

 

One such atrocity had recently come to Frays’ every-hungry attention, and thus, Estiniens. He had taken it to Aymeric, of course, the strange disappearances, how they coincided with late returning patrols, sloopy booking keeping - but there was only so much Aymeric could do from his newly minted position. A closer eye had halted the happenings for a short time, but, ultimately, the inaction had once more enbravened the participants to continue.

 

Hyurs. Young girls, mostly, but a mother and her son had gone missing before Estinien had departed. It would take little to push them into the abyss that ringed their city, but logs from the Gates of Judgement had been suspiciously altered, too, according to Lucia's report to Aymeric. This, and the targeted choice of victims, had pointed to a more sinister fate.

 

Fray had been beyond furious.

 

No, Estinien, should not be surprised he acted without him -- but there is a light smolder of anger, smothered only by his heavy handedness not to spiral. Towards himself, towards Fray.

 

The idiocy to go alone. His idiocy, in leaving him.

 

“If pain is a feeling, then yeah, I can feel it.” Fray says, finally, his inspection seemingly over, breaking Estinien from his thoughts. He blinks hard, the dryness of his eyes some indication of time passed.

 

“What lies between you and further pain is a restraint I feel you are particularly lacking.” Estinen informs him, jaw stiff from the direction his thought had taken. 

 

The bread has not moved. He had not expected it too.

 

“You’d kick a man when he’s down? Doesn’t seem your style.” Frays’ voice, he now notes, is grating, likely because he is dehydrated, and currently bleeding what little hydration is available to him out onto his floor. Wonderful, to have more heart-warming memories to grace the room. The countless nights as a young boy, sobbing helplessly into Alberic's bedsheets, had not quite been cheery enough. 

 

Fatigued, he pushes the useless snark aside, centering himself into the job at hand. Fray would reject any talk of the Hospitalilar, he knows. It would be in his hands to treat what wounds may exist -- and he is lucid, at the very least, capable of being annoying enough that Estinien almost regrets waking him.

 

He pulls his belonging towards him, and rifles through to produce his medical kit. He retrieves it, and, feeling acutely the joints of his knees, comes to sink down at Frays side. It was not exactly how he had imagined the nights rest, but he finds, he is not surprised by its turn. Against his knees, the floor digs at his sore shins uncomfortably.

 

Days of travel in any sort of stiff armour were not kind on the body.

 

“Pray tell, for what reasoning did you decide my floor was best suited as your bed?” Fray gratefully accepts the water, chugging an alarming amount before wiping his mouth against the cloth sleeve of his upper arm. There is a slight shake to his arm and the grime from his hands smudges the leather waterskin in black. Estinien wonders how long he had lain here, waiting, every moment he had paused upon his journey home a small eternity against the cold stone floor.

 

“Didn't think you’d appreciate me bleeding all over the covers.” Fray replies sunnily, fitting the waterskin on the floor between them, neatly avoiding the real question. Estinien does not bother to press further, familiar enough with Frays’ stubborn streak to know better than to try. The silence sits between them comfortably, even as Estinien looks him over intently, cataloguing what wounds are visible, and from where the blood flows. There is a stinging at his throat, some emotion that is shrill and hysterical rising to greet it.

 

He wants to ask what happened. He knows better than to. Not yet.

 

Frays helmet, a favoured part of his ensemble, is missing, and from a quick casing of the room, appears to have been lost in combat. It goes far to explain the frankly unsightly state of his face -- washed in part blood and face paint, his only remaining claim to anonymity, his left cheek swollen beyond its normal size, and his lips drooling blood from two deep splits along their edges. Upon closer inspection, his hair, too, shines dully with a dry caking of blood, the corkscrews of his hair clumped unnaturally.

 

It is here, trailing his fingers gently across chilled, familiar skin, he finds the wound. It is a shallow thing, bleeding more than its due, the edges of which have begun to coagulate. He makes a note of it, slumping back onto his sore heels. Apart from this, any visible wounds are only skin deep. However - Fray takes a hit with frightening tenacity, leaning harshly on his inability to stay down to win fights. The way he had moved from the floor, stiff and wincing, speaks of what lies beneath his armour.

 

“Where else does it hurt?” Fray snorts, some blase line no doubt on his lips, and Estinien seeks to interrupt him before he can manage it, “Truly, Fray. I would not have you in further pain.”

 

“Agh. You never say my name,” Frays’ eyes meet his, pale, amused, “You must really be worried.”

 

“About you? Always.”

 

It comes out - raw, grating softly at the back of his throat, skimming at something tender and hurt. Fray drops his eyes, what turn there was to his lips falling with them. Estinien withdraws his hand, cheeks warm, and damns his tongue its leniency.

 

“Estinien…I -” Something in Frays throat clicks, unsure, sentiments held tight at the seams. He looks as if he has taken one step up a staircase to find nothing beneath him, sincerity too painful to bear upon his face.

 

Estinien grits his teeth, biting his teeth into whatever softness fills his jaw. They don’t talk about it. Whatever it is they share, it lies unspoken. Exists only in actions.

 

“Ah, now it is my turn to be called by name,” He comments, quickly, feeling Frays’ gaze bear down upon him as he busies his hands away from his face, opening the tightly wrapped kit before him,“You must have missed me.”

 

It is an obvious diversion, one which, thankfully, Fray allows for.

 

“Sid was better company…” He trails off, true joviality faded in his voice, something heavy pulling at the skin between his brows as he pauses, carefully no longer watching Estinien, “My back. I think. And my right ankle.”

 

“Hmph?”

 

“You asked, didnt you?” The laugh that follows is harsh, blunt, “They hurt, ‘stepped on it.”

 

The quiet control Estinien had thus far maintained nigh-buckles at the admission, the imagery of sneers and armour pleated kicks too vivid in his mind's eyes. His teeth bite down harder, something coppery and heavy coming to lie malignantly at the back of his throat, and he tries his best not to clench too visibly at his own thighs.

 

That they would have the gal - the boldness -- as if they believed they were above Fray . Above them. Above the surety of judgement, of death. His hands tremble, a bloodthirsty itch that he has never quite scratched rising ugly and deep in his heart. It is always present, a baying hound winding and scratching at his legs to continue the hunt, to wade on upon his path no matter the red catching at his fingertips.

 

One that lies, now, at Frays feet. Not tamed, nor sated, but waiting.

 

“I hope,” He says, carefully, slowly, lest any echoes of his thoughts escape, “for their sake, that they are dead.”

 

This time, Frays’ amusement is not so cold.

 

“You think I'd let them live after that?” He winks, as much as a man can with half a swollen face. Estinien wants to tell him that there is no jest, that he almost died, that if they weren’t dead he would have made sure of it. That there was nowhere they could go he would not find them. 

 

( That they would be worse still, if he had been at Frays back. That death is a mercy. They would not have landed a single hit. They would be strung across the abyss, to fall forever, to contemplate their wrongdoings, their misplaced steps. He would have shredded them, rendered them beyond - )

 

Instead, he grimaces, and Frays hand brushes his knee, almost accidental, if a softness did not play at his lips.

 

“I suppose you did not find your dragon, then?”

 

Your dragon. How fitting, that Nidhoggs’ bloodiness would fall to his lap.

 

“It was not a lieutenant. They would not have survived, if it were.” 

 

The man before him hums to himself, adjusting himself up against the wall in an uncomfortable screech of metal. The wincing, crinkled expression that follows is enough to remind Estinien of what he should be doing, had been doing, before his selfishness had derailed his mind.

 

They are dead, and Fray is here, and he is foolish enough to mind one over the other.

 

He releases his thighs from his grip.

 

“Let us divest you of this armour, lest your filth merge you to it.”

 

“Be still my beating heart,” mutters Fray, though he complies still, rigid and clearly in some pain, tensing at the touch of Estinien’s palms.

 

Beneath the metal plates and thick underlays, an impressive array of bruises spreads out. Yellows seep into unhealthy greens, deep purples marr the centres of large, blue marks, trailing off into the sepia of his skin in tinges of red and exaggerated browns. The worst is, as he says, upon his back and at the apex of his ankle.  Dark, distinct marks press into the curl beneath his ribcage, heavier where the heel would have dug in on the offensive, and the outer metal of his boot is dented in such a way it has him hissing in pain to even touch it.

 

It would have likely hurt much less hours prior, if he had removed it on his own accord before it had become swollen, like he should know to do -- that is, if his stories of having once being a conjurer ring true. There must be some magic to him, however, as Estinien cannot find another wound on his body, save blisters and shallow cuts along his feet from prising the metal free. The bone itself seemed steady, though Estinien is no judge to ask, his own experience a poor but knowledgeable substitution. 

 

Idiot.

 

Wait for me, next time.

 

Fray needs a bath, he decides, as does he. But first -- 

 

He pours a small mixture of a healing potion into a bowl, and soaks a rag into it. Topically, the mixture is a slower healer, but less prone to scars than traditional magic. It would scab over what cuts remain, numb the shallower bruises, stem what little bleeding there is suitable enough for a bath.

 

With a small twist, he frees the mixture, and it drips down onto broken skin of his scalp.

 

Fray hisses in discontent, “Can’t you just kiss it better?”

 

“I cannot confidently convey how unkissable you are at this moment,.” Estinien deadpans, dipping the rag once more into the shallow bowl.

 

“Then something more special? To take the edge off?”

 

Estinien looks down at him in disapproval, and Fray splits his lip gruesomely once more, smirking wider. Baiting him. It is more endearing than it is attractive, with his cheek protruding as if he were one of the wild chinchillas that scavenged at the gatehouses. But -- he brings one hand down, guides his jaw into a shallow tilt. He moves willingly. The skin here is warm, unmarked, shifting against the edge of his fingers when Fray swallows lightly. He thinks of the drawn-out days of travel, of hunting, how he had longed to return, to share in blood at Frays' side, to share in Fray, himself. How he had driven that lance through the dragons head and thought, immediately, of the warmth of a shared bed that awaited him.

 

The Ishagardian winter is a greater wing-man that any.

 

Gently, he presses his lips to Frays’, moving his hand to stroke a thumb down the cheekbone of his unharmed side. He longs to press deeper, to curl one hand at his neck, to bring the fool into place, to fill what worry aches at his breast with the smooth brush of shared heat. Beneath him, caged within his arms, he could not throw himself so recklessly into danger at the behest of others. Not while bitten at the scruff, nor while above him, tightly held in place by limb and -

 

He pulls away, and the movement is followed by a string of moaning complaints.

 

“Fury - don’t just kiss it better, get back here.”

 

“You are not fit enough for what I have in mind for you.” He scolds, “Perhaps if you were not so adverse to attending the Hospitalier-”

 

Fray cuts him off, offended, “You hate that place, too! Sid had to drag you-”

 

“- I was not dragged, I walked -”

 

“- Before Aymeric sent a whole squadron to fetch you. You’re a hypocrite, old man.” He finishes smugly, folding one arm over his chest as if he declared the argument won, despite the flush built at his temple.

 

“I am seven winters your elder, not seventy.” Estinien tsks, electing to ignore the rest of his words. Captain Whiterun of the Hospitalter had a very personal, very real vendetta against him. To visit the Hospitaliar while injured was nothing short of suicide, thank you very much, while Fray would be fine, and Estinien would not have to play at being a healer, a job he is sorely ill-suited for.

 

He presses the rag to Frays face, and pulls Frays hand to hold it there, touch lingering a second too long. Then, he stands to start the fire, something he should have done sooner, only to catch a glimpse of Frays expression as he pulls away. There is tension in his face, be it pain or some other emotion Estinien knows not, but it strikes, rather unexpectedly, a tender note in his heart. 

 

He stacks the wood, staring into the open hearth. Fray is always strong, always climbing back onto his feet with little complaint. The fact that he had come here in the first place was testament enough to what pain he must be in, avoidant to care as he tended to be. Seeing him hurt, while satisfying to the part of him that insisted the hurt was of his own thoughtless actions, was overall… uncomfortable.

 

It suited him ill. Such as worry suited him similarly. 

 

The fire lit, he drags out the tub from the wardrobe.

 

Fresh air, he thinks, he needs to breathe.

 

“I will grab water for a bath,” Estinien asserts, ignoring the uneasiness plagueing his chest, “Rub that potion on your ankle - you might even be able to undress yourself.” Fray grumbles and waves him away, reaching once more for the waterskin.

 

The evening, when he steps out into it, has grown brisk, streaks of pink dying the gathering clouds below an ominous shade of amethyst. The light it casts is a gloomy, pigmented grey, the whiteness of anything it touches stained the lightest of pinks - at the palm of his hand, it deepens the redness brought about from the wear of travel to a bloody precipice. The courtyard proper is framed in a layer of frost that no sun had dipped to melt, a white lichen against the grey brickwork, delicately interconnecting around the bricks sealant. 

 

Despite its presence, and the chill creeping over his exposed arms, Ishgard remains a damned sight warmed than the Highlands had been, if not for the walls blocking out the worst of the bitter gales, then for the sheer population packed upon a single mountaintop. 

 

It is often, when he steps out into the chill of their winter, that he misses what had once been. The greenery, the diversity -- the sun, full, and bright, and yellowed. It was only ever a pale off-white now, cast upon by a nigh constant shroud of mist, or cloud, or snow. The city had been built to accommodate the hotness of a true Coethearn summer, where the heat would trap easily in any room without a window or door ajar. Such architectural choices seemed foolish, now, and awfully distant from his memory, though reticent, near-dream like remembrances beckon of the lingering summer days spent at Aymeric’s side, long before they had been bound by any frivolous duty.

 

Bittersweet. And now, he would sooner drink wine at a hearth than trek out to the barren, deep scars Bahphamet had left upon what had been well-visited sweet, open pastures and meadowed valleys.

 

At the very least, an eternal winter had made the leathers and layers necessary to don fire-proofed armour just the slightest bit more bearable.

 

He breathes out heavily, tracking the way his breath winds above and away with tired, set eyes. In all truth, he is exhausted, what little energy available to him is borne of that first rush of adrenaline upon seeing Fray’s unconscious form. From then, it had been a trudging, slow eat at his stamina, even the anger he felt half-boiled and withering upon contemplation.

 

It should be a wonder he yet stands, but he supposes, he must. It is not as if Fray could care for himself, not any longer. 

 

What lies between them - it is fragile. Unnamed. To warm eachothers beds, to fight at each other's side, to hold each, softly, in the betweens -- it is too precious to define. Like silk, he worries, if he were to hold it too tight, it would only slip from his grip.

 

Fray had always said he was going to die.

 

(For a second, Estinien allows himself his despair.)

 

Unwilling to be distracted further from his task, he sets about in search of the one the attendants of the upper barracks, steadily looping placid thoughts over and over to drown out the others. As the Azure Dragoon, he is afforded a room alongside those of captaincy and honour, separated from the Knights and Dragoons within the barracks. It is rarely populated, many nobles preferring their homes to the comparable spareness of the private rooms, but it suits Estiniens needs well.

 

He could not have lived with Aymeric forever - not while he made bid for the Lord Commanders office.

 

The attendant, when he finds him, is a hyur man he had shared a few words with previously upon his returns from such ventures. He nods his adequenice at Estiniens rather bland request, and departs to ready the water. Estinien returns to his quarters, with one last look out at the fading light.

 

“Try and look presentable.” He mutters to Fray upon entry. He gets a grunt in response, but the floor around his leg catches the light of the fire, proving at the very least he had applied something to his ankle. Estinien moves to prod the fire further, scattering the fresh kindling under the currently smoking log.

 

It would take longer to become truly hot.

 

The attendant knocks gently, and Estinien sets about helping him fill the tub with water from the kitchens. He is run too ragged to heade the attendants pointed insistence of doing the task alone, eager to be done with outside world.

 

“D’ya see him? Didn’t know where to look.”

 

Estinien snorts, unable to stop a small curling of his lip, “T’is not everyday they are faced with such a fine specimen.”

 

“Not in these bloody barracks,” Fray agrees, “Not a competent fighter among them.”

 

“I seem to remember-”

 

“- ‘cept you, oh mighty Azure Dragoon .”

 

Fray has made no move other than what little distance he reached for the rag, a fact that should not nearly be as concerning as it is. The bruises Estinien had glimpsed were intense, angry things, left long enough against a cold stone floor to stiffen and ache - in more than one place, he suspects they are muscle deep. He knows such injuries well, how they feel to ache at ones very bones. He comes around once more to Frays side, sliding the comment away for a later argument and offering a hand to his destitute companion.

 

“Let’s get that blood off you.” He muses, his grip tightening around Frays hand, and his other arm coming to wrap lightly at his waist, mindful of where he had last seen bruise. Fray groans dramatically nonetheless, bearing down heavily on Estiniens arm, his silver eyes scrunched to a sliver.

 

“Fuck -- you’re coming with me, alright? ‘could smell you a mile away.”

 

Estinien eyes the tub doubtfully as they near it. Alone, he could fit decently, but it had only been made with one elezen in mind.

 

“Well. You are rather small, I suppose.”

 

Fray scowls to himself, “Not where it counts,” 

 

Unwilling to dignify that with a reply, Estinien helps Fray from the rest of his armour, and then strips down himself. It is a relief to be out of his armour -- it was an ill fit for travel, made with battle in mind, and its various plates and edges dug fiercely into welts after some time. The shoes particularly were a hassle, and he’d rid himself of them long before he’d arrived in Ishgard.

 

Gingerly, Estinien steps in first, then, upon supporting Fray stumbling endeavour to lift his leg high enough, resolves himself to squeezing into the bracket of the tub. Fray comes to settle down slowly in between his legs, cursing and muttering the whole way. Estinien is pleased to notice the colourful array of bruises that had ringed his angle have faded slightly.

 

“By the seven that is good .” Fray sags in his arms, his sudden relaxation a stark contrast to his tensing, wincing self a moment before. He leans up against him with his shoulders, leaving his bruised lower back to the air, and Estinien finds that the length of his body is curiously cold, the usual richness of his leached of all colour. Bloodloss and the starkness of a cold floor, he can only assume, and he hopes the fire will fill the room with heat soon. Around them, the air has a bite to it, one made all the more apparent by the hot slide of the water at his hips.

 

He considers, woefully, the warmth he had believed he was returning to. It is not too late, he supposes, hooking his chin over Frays shoulder, though there are a few remaining barriers. Bathing, food… fury damn it, was sleep truly so far?

 

Fray is still, the only movement the smallest curl of his fingers at the protrusion of Estiniens’ knee. Their skin, side by side, is a pleasing comparison to one another. Where Estinien’s scars run white and pink, Fray’s marr in shades of brown and silver. At the touch of his palm, they are rough, caressing around the soft skin of his thigh. Estinien follows it, his fingers reaching far along the slight expanse, warm water lapping at his wrist.

 

He likes their differences. That their bodies end so suddenly.

 

“Ah… a long day for both of us.” Fray murmurs, his own hand coming to rest at Estiniens’, tangling together their fingers loosely, “We should rest, soon.”

 

And. And, Estinien knows Fray wasn’t going anywhere else. Not like this. He knows there was not going to be another option, but to hear it - we - as if they were two beings entangled. It is, perhaps, the first warmth he has truly felt this day, so full and golden it trickles down the vertebrae of his spine as some honeyed promise.

 

One such promise he must fulfill, act out in worship -- devout, and he guides his palms reverently down Frays sides. Carefully, softly, he cleanses the blood and sweat from his companion, following the shallow line of his ribs, the temperate dips of his muscle. The building blocks of everything that is, laid out before him in some wondrous depiction, some silver-plated war table.

 

It feels, mildly, as if he is undeserving of it.

 

Oblivious, Fray cares for his own blood-stained hair from the basin left to the side, allowing Estinien to hold the rest of his braided locks from the water as he watches the rhythmithic stretch and give of tendons beneath skin at Fray's meticulous endeavour. Though his hands shake, his skill  is confident and deliberate, working up from the bottom to undo the braid and clean only the affected area. The bulk of his arm, well-developed from the training of his sword, brushes steadily at Estinien’s inner elbow as he works.

 

A comforting pattern, he finds, and his eyes grow heavy in his skull. In the hearth, the fire grows hesitantly, its cast shadows dark and slight, dancing off the reflection of the tub and illuminating strips and plains of previously stained skin, now clean beneath his ministrations.

 

Fray looks better, more human, already, with his bruises hidden between their pressed bodies.

 

Silently, he commits it to memory, the dreamy half-lucidity of it something too dear to forget.

 

The paint comes off Fray last, when Estinien has washed himself of his journey, and its sticky mixture turns the water black. 

 

There’s a drop in his stomach, when he helps Fray out, and the black drips down like slow, familiar darkness from his body. He does his best to avert his eyes from it, pushing a towel into Frays hands, but it pools in the dips of his collarbones, the curve of his elbows melts into the shadows cast along his waist.

 

He presses his thumb to it, and it disappears into his skin.

 

(He thinks: the way it had caressed Frays’ blood, it’s unnatural, laborious flow leeching back into the dark armour. How, when touched, it felt of nothing, of empty, how it opened wide an abyss inconsiderable in size at his very being.

 

How Fray held that inside of him. Echoless. Deserted. 

 

Estinien pours, and it is never full, and it is never sated.)

 

They dry off in a thoughtful silence, Estinines mind quietly undoing to his fatigue. There is a sweet ache at his legs that yearns for the coming rest, one that is mirrored by the joints of his knees, his pelvis, bare bone grinding to a final stop. He should stretch, work out the kinks in his muscles and push his flexibility before he sleeps, yet he finds himself despairing at merely the thought. He has dragged himself this far, further, and with the promise of sleep within his reach -

 

He sighs, pulling a shirt over his chest. He should at least eat . Aymeric would know, somehow, if he didn’t. 

 

Besides, Fray would need the encouragement.

 

“Drink the rest of that,” He picks up the health potion from the floor, placing it down on the table next to Fray. The towel he’d lent him has come to rest around his waist, the man himself leant heavily against the table, bleary-eyed and doubtless as tired as Estinien himself. He has not the energy to address the drying of his tongue at the sight, mundane as the setting is. Or perhaps it is the nature of it - unceremonious, common, as if he belonged here in Estiniens chambers.

 

He’d just bathed with the man, but somehow it is more enticing to see him half clothed than with none at all.

 

“It tastes like shit.” Fray says, eyeing the bottle, “I know it does.”

 

“You brought it on yourself.” Estinien mumbles, foregoing cutlery to simply pull a piece of bread from the loaf, shaking his mind of distracted thoughts, “Stick to being a conjurer, next time.”

 

Fray eyes him, like he has something to say about it, but stays blessedly silent with exception of a token “eugh” as he downs the potion. Immediately after he rips a handful of bread from the already mauled loaf, and stuffs it into his mouth as if he cannot get it in fast enough, scattering flour about the table. Estinien has not the mind to care, reserving the problem for a future version of him that is not so hard done by, so stupidly relieved to see Frays’ hearty obnoxiousness.

 

“No meat?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

Fray laughs with his mouth full of bread, like Estinien said something funny, and then winces as he knocks his ribs against the table. Estinien quirks up an eyebrow, but Fray is content to finish eating his bread with a smirk at his lips, and so Estinien eats his, too. It is comforting, to have a moment like this between others, and Estinien finds the tension he unwittingly held unwinds slowly from his shoulders. 

 

Fray is safe . He is here, eating Estiniens bread, draped in Estiniens towel, watching Estiniens face with tired, shadowed eyes. The swelling in his cheek has come down a little, but there is still something unmistakably ragged about his features, something further than mere tiredness.

 

Vulnerability, and his heart strings tug uncomfortably.

 

 It is not right, not on Fray.

 

“Bed.” He says, allowing Frays gaze to fall away as he stands to cover what remains of the loaf.

 

“Bed.” Fray echoes, his voice trailing off into a rumble. Estinien rounds the table and helps him up, securing his arm tightly about his tidy waist and guiding him too the bed. Fray is beyond complaining about coddling, but Estinien can almost taste his protests as he refuses to brace himself back, his healthy leg trembling with the strain of balance.

 

Idiot , he wants to say, a ceaseless impulse for the entire night, let me look after you.

 

The towel falls away from its loose knot at the bedside and Estinien does not bother to kick it away. Instead, he slides into bed after Fray, boxing him in against the wall, the press of his skin warmer, now, pleasing in its closeness. His arm does not leave his waist, and he spreads his fingers to a flex, intimately aware of the rise and fall of Frays every breath. His hand is large, stretched out above his ribs, and their relationship does not feel so fragile, here. Contained between their chests.

 

Here, where Fray shifts to move into the arc of his body, his injured side resting carefully against Estiniens flank. There is trust, raw and painful, shy in its diligent creep across their forms.

 

That Fray would come to him . Allow him this. It does not escape his notice, can not escape his notice. Not when he is so wholly fixated, so foolishly enamoured. The pillows are soft, the blankets supple, but it is neither that accounts for the wave of wellbeing that washes over him, neither he can attribute to the sudden loosening of his muscles, the ardor at his heart.

 

His fingers pull together, and he smooths his hand down to Frays hips, pulling him closer, needing him nearer. Safer. His eyes shutter, and he thinks of the snow he has trekked through, the blood he has spilt, how Fray had awaited him, still, at the end of journey - even if it were not as originally promised.

 

“If you elbow me, you won’t wake up.” Fray swears, his lips dry against Estiniens collarbone. 

 

But his grip only tightens, and Estinien surrenders himself to sleep.